Running a Church

What defines us?

The inadequacy some pastors feel may arise from a disconnect between what they feel called to do and what they are expected to do. We want to care for people; the people expect us to run a church.

Somehow we have to find a way to do both.


The Problem

My therapist1 put content to something I’d struggled with for 35 years.

I had expressed to her the tensions I had been feeling regarding our church’s 2021 budget. Though the church’s giving in 2020 had been surprisingly good, it wasn’t sufficient to meet the aggressive goals we had set the year before. Our church is small, and our part time staff is comprised of outstanding, devoted, and gifted people. And yet I was facing the possibility that these people whom I valued and loved would lose hours, if not their jobs altogether. I was losing sleep over these matters, and I began to believe I was responsible for it all - that it was my fault.

If I were a better pastor, I thought, the church would be growing, more money would be coming in, and we would not be facing this. I was thinking, if not saying, “If I were a better pastor like ___” (that is, the pastor across town or the one who blogs).

When I begin to think this way, I begin to wish I’d chosen some other career.

My therapist took a more reasonable view. She reminded me that these stresses were normal for someone who runs a small business.

“Runs a small business?”

That was it!

Like it or not, I run a small business. I have no training or particular facility for running a business. I have never set out to do so. But here I am running a business with all the worries and apprehensions that come with it. As well, I have dozens of well-meaning and concerned people observing and forming judgements on all I do in running the business.

It’s no wonder I feel stress.

The garnish and the dish

Running a business is not what most of us think of when we believe that God is calling us to be a pastor. That calling arises elsewhere. We find we have a passion to teach and to preach the Bible. We find in our hearts a deep desire to come alongside people and to help them see Christ. Adding to that a garnish of small business headaches is not normally in the picture.

But the headaches come anyway and the challenge is to keep this aspect of ministry secondary. However, with all the pressure to be successful, to add numbers to the bottom line, to show a profit, to have more customers than the year before, the secondary easily becomes primary. It becomes the thing that keeps us awake at night.

The struggle to manage the church and to see it grow can become the pastor’s self-defining role. Soon, since this may not be our strong suit, we conclude that we’re simply bad pastors. We spiral into self-loathing or we quit. Or both.

The garnish has poisoned the whole dish.

Pastor first

It was when feeling this way years ago that I first read The Comtemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson. His words were a cool breeze for my fevered brain. Here was the push back against running a church that I needed as he validated my primary calling and moved to put the idea of “running a church” in its proper place. Running a church, a small business, he acknowledged, is a part of what we do and he encourages us to do it as well as we are able. But this is not what defines us.

I [run a church] in the same spirit that I, along with my wife, run our house. . . . running a house is not what we do. What we do is build a home, develop in marriage, raise children, practice hospitality, pursue lives of work and play.2

Peterson told me it was okay to be a pastor first. To pray, to teach, and to sit at Starbucks and drink coffee while listening to a young woman or man wrestle with her or his future, these are good things, primary things. These are the things that define a pastor, not the ability to run a church.

I run the church the best I can, but not as well as many. Perhaps because of my lack of skill in this area, my church is and always will be small. But that does not define me as a pastor.

I wish I could turn over to someone else the details of this small business called Covenant Presbyterian Church, but I can’t. And so I do what needs doing and I fight to keep pastoring primary.

My concern here is for the many of you who feel you are illegitimate and incompetent pastors because you don’t excel at running a church. Your legitimacy and competence lie elsewhere. Remember that.

You’re no doubt a good pastor. Maybe you’re not as good at running a business as you’d like. That’s okay.

You can still be a good pastor.

1

That I see a therapist may unsettle your opinion of me from the outset. I hope it doesn’t. I’ll let it stand here simply as evidence of my own brokenness. It may, however, have something significant to say about the pastoral office itself. We’ll explore that later.

2

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (United States: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p. 59.